Thrifty Living: We've all stopped spending. It's the end of the world
Saturday 19 January 2008
reading the road, Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic vision set at the end of the world, I was struck by how the things we regard as "valuables" – namely credit cards and cash – were utterly useless, as opposed to the huge value given to things we currently don't set much store by, such as tinned peaches and home-made toys. Coins are meaningless tokens. A pack of playing cards, however, is a thing of wonder.
McCarthy sets his hero in a dangerous, bleak, threatening and frightening landscape. However, at least it is a landscape that manages without the questionable attraction that is the Harrods Winter Sale. Which, by the way, is still on. Harrods calls it The Sale, as if it is the bargain hunter's paradise nonpareil. Except that this year all the bargain hunters are staying at home. All right, if you visit it, you might pick up a Chloé bag for £350, as opposed to £700, but I think that the giant red and white sale signs throughout the store indicate that Harrods is getting desperate. The end of the world might not yet be here, but human behaviour so far in 2008 indicates that we might (at last) be witnessing the end of shopping sprees as we once knew (and loved) them.
How else can you explain the giant adverts that stride down the store's outrageously tasteless "Egyptian" escalator? These say that if you spend £100 on one single Sale purchase, you'll be eligible for a Prize Draw to win an African safari for one lucky shopper. It's the "one single purchase" that's the give-away. So you can't just rock up at Harrods, like my parents used to, and buy 10 small but useful household things like bars of soap, fluffy towels or tights. You need to spend a ton right off, by plunging into the delights of a Nicole Farhi jumper (£115), a Paul Smith shirt (ditto) or some Sale lobster in the Food Hall. Harrods needs us to get lavish with our spending, because we haven't yet this Christmas and Mr Al Fayed needs his books balancing.
It's the same on the high street. It seems as if Marks & Spencer has only kept its head above water by slashing already discounted items, and other shops are vainly trying to keep control of our spending (that is, persuading us to flex the plastic), by extending their sales, offering 70 per cent discounts and tempting us with Final Offers.
But, apart from the women I saw charging around the Moschino concession at Harrods, it appears we won't be drawn. We've seen the debt-ridden future and we want no part of it.
Dear thrift seeker, I sense the rank odour of fear out there. Fear in shopkeepers, that is. Fear that we, the overdrawn public, have cottoned on to the fact that most people can't wear more than 20 pairs of shoes or three pairs of jeans a year. Fear that we might at last have clocked that throwing £700, (or even £350) at a hideous olive green bag with dozens of zippered pockets and a giant label on it is a total waste of money. Indeed, fear that the whole notion of "statement" bags is thoroughly unstylish.
And fear, finally, that we may all have simply stopped heroically spending money. Nowadays it seems that plenty of us are choosing to stay home with our children and play checkers with them. As does McCarthy's hero. All right, he does it while coughing up blood in a ruined house, but you get the idea.
Rather than taking the Junior Millards out to indulge in the former leisure activity of shopping, which always burns a hole in my wallet, I have determined to reintroduce the pleasures of Free Time en famille. This is not so much time off, as time away from the cash till. Things that work well in Free Time include playing with jigsaws, board games and train tracks. And there is always walking the dog to while away a bit of non-contact time with the MasterCard. And cooking.
"But Mummee," wails the eldest, "I wanna go shopping!" Too bad, I say. We are going to stay at home and play Scrabble. If she goes on and on (because naturally the attractions of the N1 shopping centre, in her mind, far outweigh the delights of coming up with JUDO, even on a triple word score with a double letter score for the J), I tell her that I can't possibly think about spending even a minute shopping for non-essentials, thanks to the monumental size of my tax bill. For which I must find sufficient cash in 12 days. Unless, between now and 31 January, the world comes to an end.
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